Chatting With Biram Dah Abeid
Fearless and courageous, Biram Dah Abeid is not afraid to stand up against injustice. In his country of Mauritania, slavery remains common—a practice that is often overlooked by the government. As president of the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement, Dah Abeid is focused on ending the epidemic.
It is estimated that at least 30 million people are enslaved globally. “To me, freedom means that all people are free,” says Dah Abeid. “If there is even one slave, freedom is not complete”—his work is evident of this commitment. He’s faced both punishment and acclaim for his actions and in 2013, he was honored as a Frontline Human Rights Defender by the International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and as a Human Rights Prize winner by the United Nations.
JET: How does it feel to be honored by the international community for your work?
Biram Dah Abeid: After fighting diplomacy for five years, it feels like a long-awaited victory. The government of Mauritania, the political parties and the Ouloma, are united against the clarification of the discrimination, slavery, and the problems of the Black Mauritanian. This prize symbolizes that the United Nations is against the policies of Mauritanian government, slavery and segregation.
JET: Describe how you obtained the resources to extend your fight against slavery to the United States.
BDA: We were able to publicize our struggle when we were imprisoned and the torture that we are facing in our country was exposed. When we were taken to court, we considered it a source of communication and a means to convey our message to the world. Being banned by the government was a source also, and our caravan to the village of Inal where the Black Mauritanian military had been killed by the white people in cold blood [brought additional exposure to our cause]. The biggest source that conveyed our news to the world was our risk to burn the [Islamic] books of slavery, which are sacred in Mauritania. And of course, the international organizations, and the prize of Weimar in Germany, the prize of the Front Line Defenders in Ireland, and our speeches were also important sources of exposure.
JET: What are the most challenging deterrents in trying to end slavery?
BDA: The Mauritanian government, its administration and the society because the governors are slave owners, so they lie on the international community and make laws against slavery and then imprison the anti-slavery activists.
JET: Can freed men become slaves in Mauritania?
BDA: There is the Haratin, who think that they are free, [but actually aren’t and are very close to being slaves themselves]. The slave owners say that the only difference between them and the slaves is the distance between from the bottom of a cow’s tail and the ground. Those Haratin who think that they are free are also under the hell of the modern slavery.
JET: Why should African-Americans care about slavery across the world?
BDA: It is their duty and also the duty of all human beings to be concerned with this issue. However, African-Americans, specifically, have a long history of captivity and servitude in the United States and those memories often cause them to feel the effect of current slavery practices more than others. The current oppression that some of them are still facing stems from that history of slavery.
JET: What inspires you to risk your life for this cause?
BDA: A lot of feelings inspire me to do that. First of all, it is my responsibility toward the slaves and my father and his fathers and his ancestors, as well as my feelings about the future after my death. I want my life to be a legacy of doing good and that will bring me to paradise.
JET: What are your plans for the future?
BDA: My plans are to enlarge the population of my human rights movement, which I lead in Mauritania IRA and to expand international support and diplomacy to IRA in preparation to end slavery and the racist government and system.
JET: What is the worst thing that slavery does to a country and its people?
BDA: The worst thing that slavery does to a country is generate underdevelopment and poverty; it separates people and causes civil wars.
JET: Where would you be now if you weren’t fighting for the abolition of slavery?
BDA: If I were not fighting against slavery, I would be teaching at a university and researching; I would not be known by a lot of people.
JET: What does freedom mean to you?
BDA: To me, freedom means that all people are free. If there is one slave, freedom is not complete, and to be able to receive everything that I deserve and not be denied it because of my nature, color or religion.
JET: When faced with challenges involving your work, how do you overcome them?
BDA: I overcome it with a determination that makes my enemies hesitate and force them to give up. At the end, I know that I will be the winner, even if I take risks. For the past five years, we’ve gone against the government and system. We put the government in the situation to lose international credibility, and we pay the taxes that the people before us refused to pay.
JET: How can we get young people more involved in world affairs at a younger age?
BDA: We need to create a concern for the environment that they are growing up in and for the problems that they are suffering from. We need them to study books from other cultures. When I was child, I saw people suffering and I read a lot about France’s philosophies, the lives of some prophets and messengers who fought against tyranny and supported the oppressed and marginalized people. I also read about a lot of the revolutions. These are helpful to me now.
Editor’s Note: Responses were rewritten from a document written by the translator in Mauritania.